At this time a year ago, I wrote about Novak Djokovic’s quest for historical supremacy at the major tournaments as he moves through a fascinating journey in this era alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. After the 2019 Australian Open—when Djokovic played probably the best big match of his illustrious career to defeat Nadal in the final—the Serbian had secured 15 titles at the Grand Slam events. He stood five crowns behind the Swiss Maestro and two titles in back of the redoubtable Spaniard. Djokovic had made substantial gains on Federer by sweeping his third Big 4 title in a row. Prior to the start of that surge which started at Wimbledon in 2018, he was no fewer than eight titles behind Federer, but his preeminence at the last two majors of 2018 and the first of the following year put Djokovic into another realm.
Now, this singularly evocative individual is as close to his two foremost rivals as he has ever been in his bid to stand alone at the top of the men’s Grand Slam title list of victors. He owns 17, two less than Nadal and only three shy of Federer. As the youngest member of the trio—he will be 33 in May, Nadal turns 34 in June, and Federer reaches 39 in August—Djokovic should have the most opportunities to succeed on the premier stages of the sport in the years to come.
There are, of course, some imponderables. For example, having won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon respectively a year ago over Nadal and Federer, many in the know believed he would defend his US Open title and collect a fourth crown in New York. But he was hindered by a shoulder injury and retired mid-match against Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round. Nadal exploited Djokovic’s early departure to the hilt, claiming a fourth Open title to move within one major of Federer. Djokovic never looked like himself at the Open, and the injury was a clear impediment.
But by virtue of securing an eighth title in Melbourne last weekend, Djokovic has put himself in an enviable position. He already has a major in his 2020 collection, and there are three more chances for him to take another major or two in what will be a critical campaign for the Serbian. As he said after rallying with quiet ferocity to overcome Dominic Thiem in a memorable five set, Australian Open final, “I am grateful I had an opportunity to win another Australian Open. Obviously at this stage of my career, the Grand Slams are the ones that I value the most. They are the ones that I prioritize before the season starts. I try to set my form and shape for those events, to be at my prime tennis mentally and physically. There are obviously a lot of stats that I am proud of, and of course there is a lot of history on the line. I do have professional goals, and the Grand Slams are one of the main reasons I am still competing and playing full seasons. I am trying obviously to get the historic No. 1, which is another big goal. I have put myself in this position that is really good at the moment, and I am super happy with the way I have started the season. It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the season.”
Looking retrospectively at the seven previous times Djokovic captured the Australian Open to commence his annual campaign, his fortunes have fluctuated over the years. In four of those seasons, he built on the platform of the victorious Melbourne fortnight and added more majors later on in those years. Twice—in 2011 and 2015–he took two more majors. But in 2008, 2012 and 2013, he did not succeed again at one of the sport’s centerpiece tournaments.
The fact remains that times have changed for Djokovic. In 2012 and 2013, he had the misfortune of losing four finals combined at the Grand Slam events after emerging victorious Down Under. In fact, by the middle of 2014 when he was beaten by Nadal in the final at Roland Garros, Djokovic had a 6-7 career record in major finals. Since then, no one has been better on the big occasions. He has captured 11 of his last 13 finals in Grand Slam tournaments to lift his total to 17-9, and that is no mean feat. In that span, he has lost in final round contests at majors only to Stan Wawrinka—at the 2015 French and 2016 US Opens. No one else has toppled him.
That is one of the chief reasons why I believe he will eventually break Federer’s record. He is the sport’s ultimate all surface stylist, and since winning Wimbledon in 2014 he has been an unassailable big match player. His last two final round triumphs at the majors are illustrative of his supreme mental toughness when the most prestigious prizes are up for grabs. Against Thiem in the Australian Open final, he precariously trailed two sets to one after losing six games in a row from the end of the second set into the middle of the third. His emotional energy dropped ominously low. Djokovic was sorely dehydrated. And yet, across the fourth and fifth sets, he came out of the doldrums and performed in his familiar lockdown mode, finding the corners on serve, measuring his ground strokes impeccably, returning with his customary brilliance and consistency.
At Wimbledon last summer, he took the title despite a disconcertingly pro-Federer Centre Court audience cheering the Swiss player’s every move vociferously. Djokovic contained his emotions with extraordinary discipline, and battled back magnificently from double match point down at 8-7 in the fifth set on Federer’s serve to ultimately prevail in a tie-break held at 12-12.
Djokovic has seldom been found wanting in those situations. In fact, he has won 4 of the 5 Grand Slam finals he has contested that have gone the distance, befitting for a man who has taken 31 of 41 five-set matches altogether in his career. His mental toughness under massive pressure has allowed Djokovic to realize his highest ambitions. He is irrefutably the most emotional and demonstrative member of the Big 3, wearing his heart on his sleeve (with rare exceptions like the 2019 Wimbledon final), venting at officials as he did when called for two time violations by the umpire against Thiem at 4-4 in the second set. He can get in his own way at times. But more often than not, he surges past his demons and summons with an astonishing inner strength. He wrestles with himself and his ambitions, but almost always finds a safe path to success.
My feeling is that Djokovic is good for at least one more major this year and perhaps two. He has won Roland Garros only once, taking the world’s premier clay court crown in 2016, establishing himself as the first man since Rod Laver took his second Grand Slam in 1969 to sweep four majors in a row. Despite the fact that Nadal will as always be the overwhelming favorite to win the French Open this year as he chases a 13th title, Djokovic is perennially a big threat on the dirt; he might be overdue for another Paris triumph. He has turned Wimbledon into his second most productive showcase, winning there on the lawns five times. His return of serve is an even more valuable asset on the grass than on any other surface, and his markedly improved serving as of late will make him tough to beat this year. The Serbian is at his very best on hard courts. Although he has won the US Open three times, Djokovic has surprisingly been beaten in the finals there on five occasions, falling once to Federer, Murray and Wawrinka, and twice against Nadal. As long as he is fully fit, Djokovic is more than capable of another triumph or two in New York over the next three years.
The Serb will clearly have two or three more opportunities to seal another Australian Open title. And that will be true through 2023 at the rest of the majors as well. He will not be 35 until 2022, and 35 is the new 30. Djokovic will still conceivably be playing an outstanding brand of tennis for several more years, striving above all to raise his historical stature. This week, he is celebrating his 276th week at No. 1 in the ATP rankings. The only players to have spent more weeks at the top are Pete Sampras (286) and Federer (310). Djokovic should surpass Sampras in the spring, and perhaps Federer in the autumn. And then he will surely put forth a conscientious effort to finish the year at No. 1 and break a tie with Federer and Nadal; all three have concluded five years at the top of the charts. Sampras celebrated six years in a row (1993-98) at No. 1.
To be sure, the competitive landscape is changing. Djokovic has turned around his career rivalries with Federer and Nadal spectacularly. He holds a 27-23 career lead over Federer and is ahead of Nadal 29-26. Djokovic was 6-13 at one stage versus Federer and 7-16 against Nadal. He believes in his chances against his two greatest career-long rivals. But one of the keys as he searches for more Grand Slam titles across the next couple of seasons will be how Djokovic deals with his younger rivals. He had lost four of his last five meetings with Thiem before turning the tables on the Austrian in Melbourne, now holding a 7-4 lead in the rivalry. Meanwhile, Djokovic is 2-2 versus Stefanos Tsitsipas, 3-2 against Sascha Zverev, and 4-2 against Daniil Medvedev.
How Djokovic fares against those four rivals may well be critical in determining whether or not he breaks the record for men’s Grand Slam titles. In turn, Nadal will be hard to beat at Roland Garros for at least the next two years, and he remains a very strong contender at the other majors. Federer is unlikely to win a major outside of Wimbledon, but twice he was a point away from taking a ninth title at the All England Club last year. He will still be one of the favorites on the lawns for the next few years. Federer might conclude his career with 21 majors with Nadal perhaps matching that number.
And yet, I maintain that, all things being equal, Djokovic will be the man standing at the top of the Grand Slam mountain when all is said and done. I believe he will get to 22. This is a man driven by very powerful private engines, a champion through and through, and a warrior willing to push himself to his absolute limits in pursuit of the loftiest honors. As he said in Melbourne, “I have had the privilege to win this big tournament eight times and to start off the season with a Grand Slam title win significantly boosts your confidence and your expectations are quite high for the rest of the season. But whatever happens, this season is already successful. There are many things on the tennis court that I can still improve and there is always something to work on. There are always more trophies to win.”